Adam Smith, the father of Capitalism, wrote about “The Invisible Hand”. The Invisible Hand is the functioning of a capitalist system, which would always bring good. Adam Smith imagined a well honed system of free markets plus enveloping democracy that turned people’s innate greed into productivity. I like the idea that some people are hungry and hire me to make their dinner and both parties benefit. But what if there is only a finite amount of food to be turned into dinner? In a reality of limited resources, the blind Invisible Hand hits a wall.
Jonathan Swift satirized this exact scenario in his writing on the Irish Potato Famine. The most shocking part of that actual historical event is that the Irish continued to export food while their population was dropping dead from famine! The “Visible Hand” is what is inevitably called in to clean up after the fervent workings of the Invisible Hand are complete. In the case of the Irish, the grave diggers together formed the thumb of the Visible Hand.
In the case of Onondaga Lake in Syracuse, NY, which was turned from a resort lake to the worlds dirtiest waste pit in the span of a 100 years, the Visible Hand takes the form of giant cranes currently dredging the lake. Honeywell’s externalities are largely to blame for the continuing mess, though the lake has indeed gotten a lot better. Nonetheless, the tons of mercury persist: 22 pounds of it was dumped per day at the nadir of industrial lake use. Corporations externalize risk by externalizing as many costs as possible. This is great for the share holders in the short term, but awful for the other stake holders (the community, the environment) in the long term. The externalities disappear off the record books and reappear smack dab in the middle of our lives.
Remember the time before the 2008 crash? The “Trickle Down” theory seemed somehow semi-real, at least in the form of that slightly bitter drip in your throat after the party at your financier’s friend’s Manhattan apartment. Today, as the economy sinks, corporations are evaporating way faster than the festering pools of externalities they leave behind. The Visible Hand is made of the thousands of Chinese people hired to paint pollen onto flowers to polinate them, filling in for the deceased bees. The Visible Hand is the conglomeration of crews and communities cleaning up and dealing with catastrophic oil shipping accidents that could have been prevented (Exxon Valdez Spill: captain was drunk). The Visible Hand are the people lighting their tap water on fire after they’ve signed their land over to Hydraulic Fracturing (‘Fracking’) projects.
In a Russian fairy tale from my childhood there is a whale so large that a whole city exists on it’s back. I am fascinated with the idea that the whale can do it’s thing and due to it’s sheer size never even feel the city. At the same time, the citizens of the city are going about their business, not even noticing that they are living on a whale! I haven’t seen such a beast as that whale in real life until I saw the bucket excavator. Is that thing really real‽ It looks like Dick Cheney’s steam punk fantasy nightmare. And if you look at it, there is even a little house on it! It looks like a fine family home, but how long can someone live up there? And why do they need to live on the excavator anyway?
Perhaps the bucket excavator is also a whale, swimmingly guided by that ever-determined Invisible Hand, mining dirty brown coal for us to burn for electricity. I don’t want to think about the kind of Visible Hand we are going to need to arm wrestle this bad boy. The bucket excavator symbolizes the mutability of the Invisible Hand, it’s slow but crushing fatalistic lexicon. But the bucket excavator is easy to pick on you might say, and other examples of apocalyptic machinations of State Captialism are probably more salient.
Take for example, the trucks Bloomberg just unleashed on the Occupy Wall Street protesters. The amazing sound weapons were used to bring the protesters to their knees do the bidding of the Invisible Hand, which by this point carries signs of gangrenous infections of government corruption. The fetid smell of a wormed-through congress, pampered by lobbyists and drunk on insider information, has swirled around the fingers of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. As we sit by and feel the Invisible Hand fisting our future, we may ask: is so-called “progress” evil?
Progress is great, and anyone who says that in order to stay competitive we have to steer clear of environmental regulations is probably someone who is not willing to face the true costs. People say that wind and solar energy would be competitive with coal if the price of coal reflected it’s true cost. Recent reports show that despite the economic downturn, CO2 production kicked up 5% in 2010. Global subsidies for the fossil fuel industry is being approximated at the astronomical levels of 400 billion. Yet, in the US the energy companies invest only 2% on R&D (as written about in a recent New Yorker magazine issue). Basically, that is almost nothing. We need uncorrupted regulation to wrap the uncorrupted free market and achieve a system that makes sense.
The current condition of Corporatism, or Statism, is fragile. The system claims to be doing it’s best: and like HAL 9000 it is apocalyptically wrong. The Invisible Hand, though it is festering with infected abscesses from bailout injections and bedraggled with engorged ticks of greed is flailing forward and shaping and re-shaping the world in it’s image. But the Visible Hand knows what the other hand is doing. The Visible Hand is inevitable. The Visible Hand will HAVE to do the clean up.